Category Archives: Nativity

From bitter cold to laughter and light.

I know that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ has passed; the Leavetaking of Nativity was yesterday, so that we might enter fully into today’s feasts. So it may seem a bit odd for me to post the poem below, but for many reasons it seems most appropriate. (One practical reason is that I only now rose from my sick bed to look at my blog!) I might be hearkening back to the early church, about which we read:

“During the first centuries of Christianity, the Feast of Theophany was celebrated together with a number of observances as recorded in the Gospels. They are: the Annunciation of the archangel Gabriel to the Holy Virgin Mary; the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the glorification of the heavenly hosts, the veneration by the shepherds and the coming of the Magi; the Circumcision; the Naming of our Lord; the Presentation in the Temple; the Flight into Egypt and Return; the Baptism at the River Jordan; the Temptation in the Wilderness and the Testimony (Witness) of St. John the Forerunner.

“This group of feasts was celebrated from the 6th to the 13th of January, called the octave of Theophany; the most prominent being the Birth and Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, with special importance afforded to the Baptism. The church grouped the birth and baptism, together (called Theophany, “the revelation of God,”) on January the 6th because they were the first revelations of His divinity, incarnation, and the beginning of His ministry as Lord and Savior of mankind.”

I first read the poem last summer on Elizabeth’s blog, so she obviously thought it applicable at any time of the year. And for myself, I can’t imagine looking forward to a new calendar year with anything but foreboding, were it not for the fact that “God is with us.”

Do you count this the seventh or eighth day of Christmas? Most Christians count Christmas Day itself as the first day, so New Year’s Day is the Eighth Day. For us Orthodox, it is also the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and St. Basil’s Day. Soon we will arrive at the glorious Feast of Theophany.

So many feasts and commemorations! But they all flow from the astounding fact and reality that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Happy New Year, Dear Friends!

NOËL

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

-J.R.R. Tolkien

If your Christmas celebrations were lacking in bells, I recommend these videos of bell-ringing from New Jersey to California and abroad. Most of them start out slow and progress to very lively and joyous. Nothing compares to hearing them as you are leaving church after services of a Great Feast, but these are worthwhile substitutes. The bells of Paradise never stop ringing.

Bells of St. Nicholas

Brother Seraphim

St. Alexander Nevsky

Sf. Ioan Teologul

St. Alexander Nevsky (shorter)

Waking with the living pains.

Three years ago I first posted this poem, which Malcolm Guite had introduced me to in his collection, Waiting on the Word. I looked at it again today on his website where as usual you can listen to him read it if you like. By means of the earthiest concrete images Anne Ridler offers a vision and understanding that is so broad and deep, it’s providing me with fresh appreciation for all the ways that God’s grace infuses our every moment, and how His life pulls us,and prods us awake.

“The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way.”

CHRISTMAS AND COMMON BIRTH

Christmas declares the glory of the flesh:
And therefore a European might wish
To celebrate it not at midwinter but in spring,
When physical life is strong,
When the consent to live is forced even on the young,
Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein,
Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain.
Also before a birth, nourishing the child
We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing—to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent in cones
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beech wood aspiring,
Each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring
With scent sight sound indivisible in song.

Yet if you think again
It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year
That might wish to sleep ever.
For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain;
And now at midwinter are the hints, inklings
(Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening)
That sleep must be broken.
To bear new life or learn to live is an exacting joy:
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Freedom it brings: We should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.

So Christ comes
At the iron senseless time, comes
To force the glory into frozen veins:
His warmth wakes
Green life glazed in the pool, wakes
All calm and crystal trance with the living pains.

And each year
In seasonal growth is good — year
That lacking love is a stale story at best
By God’s birth
Our common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.

-Anne Ridler

Sun temples don’t celebrate in winter.

Why is Christmas on December 25? Did Christians make use of a pagan festival date when they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth? Very unlikely, as you will understand if you read William J. Tighe’s  “Calculating Christmas.”

“In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious [to some] that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

“There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.”

Tighe explains that “…the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

If they didn’t choose December 25 for that reason, why did they? For reasons we never would have thought of in modern times. Read the whole brief article to find out.

We came to the setting of the sun…

The Second Day of Nativity was splendid.

After Liturgy friend Margaret and I went to breakfast and then out to the coast to walk on the beach. The sun was shining but it was wintry with wind beating against us from every direction and tearing the sea foam into chunks of confetti which then ran away across the sand.

We walked and talked and talked and walked, and kind of got lost. We had pushed a long way to the south without realizing it, and then when we came back, we couldn’t recognize the path by which we had come down through the dunes at the start. So, up we walked on a different path, me thinking we might have gone too far and were at the northern access to the beach. Nope. After looking at a map that a couple of newbies were kind enough to show us (we who named this our favorite beach!) we realized that we had crossed an invisible boundary to the next beach south, and were still not back to the beach we’d started out on. We had a long way to go yet back to the car.

So we kept on, till we got to the proper exit, and then turned around to face the sea once more as the sun was going down, for a good-bye. We said a couple of prayers together, ending with “the earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible that is still in use today,” Phos Hilaron, which we know as “O Gladsome Light.”

O Gladsome Light of the holy glory
of the immortal, heavenly, holy, blessed Father:
O Jesus Christ.

Now that we have come to the setting of the sun,
and behold the light of evening, we praise God:
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For meet it is at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise,
O Son of God and Giver of life;
therefore all the world doth glorify Thee.